Hitchcock Reviews: “North by Northwest” (1959) and “Psycho” (1960)
Posted by therebelprince on August 6, 2012
Welcome back to my Hitchcock reviews, where I attempt an informal look at the vast bulk of the legendary director’s canon. It’s only a brief perusal of the films and TV episodes, but I’m hoping it will encourage others to continue appreciating Hitch’s legacy, and to evaluate the films on their individual contexts and merits, rather than simply the commonly-accepted beliefs about each of them.
Last time, I looked at one of the director’s masterpieces: Vertigo. Today, I’m tackling two of his most popular films: North by Northwest and Psycho.
“That wasn’t very sporting, using real bullets.”
— Phillip Vandamm (James Mason)
North by Northwest (1959)
written by Ernest Lehman
Mistaken for another man, ad executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) finds himself on the run from a plot that he can’t begin to understand…
In a career that spanned six decades, Alfred Hitchcock created innumerable iconic images: battles on the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore; diving seagulls; gruesome shower deaths; grey suits; Grace Kelly. Yet is there a more lasting Hitchcock image than Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster? And more to the point, is there a scene that has been more relentlessly picked apart by film students and theorists? Before he was a storyteller or psychoanalyst, Hitchcock was a technician, and this consummate skill is evident throughout the frames of North by Northwest. We’ve talked a lot in these reviews about the prominent elements of Hitch’s life – his Catholic schoolboy past, his obsession with icy blondes, his interest in ever-shifting moral palettes – but it’s worth remembering that, above all else, he was a filmmaker. The devestatingly precise editing of sequences such as the crop-duster will be echoed by the schizophrenic splicing of Psycho‘s most famous moment. This is a master craftsman at the peak of his form, and should provide an interesting comparison as we review his later works.
North by Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s smoothest efforts. Cary Grant, in his final Hitchcock role, was tailor-made for the role of the increasingly discombobulated Roger Thornhill. Grant manages to play both the ‘wrong man’ vibe and the slickness of a Mad Men-era ad exec, with equal panache. As his lover, Eva Marie Saint is both an admirable Hitchcock blonde and a worthy adversary (even if their relationship is one of Hitch’s more misogynistic). The supporting cast – including James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau, and the riotous Jessie Royce Landis as Roger’s clueless mother – are impeccable. It was Hitch’s tenth straight collaboration with cinematographer Robert Burks, and his fifth with composer Bernard Herrmann. While it’s not the most iconic work from either of those two, nothing disappoints. Burks takes full advantage of the lavish colours available, in one of Hitch’s last gaudy spectacles. Herrmann’s dynamic score is miles away from the ever-decreasing circles of his work on Vertigo, and must have been a delightful confection for the composer. Ernest Lehman‘s well-oiled script (Oscar-nominated, no less), was written from the flimsiest of ideas – a man in Lincoln’s nose on Mt. Rushmore – which had been in Hitchcock’s head for years. The script contains dialogue even wittier than To Catch a Thief, slick character creation, and countless joyful set pieces. The director had long enjoyed evading the censors, and did so again here. After placating the bigwigs by offhandedly allowing his leads to talk of marriage as they engage in triumphant lovemaking, the film’s closing shot – a train pummelling its way into a tunnel – is perhaps his most overtly cheeky shot. In short, this is perhaps Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining film.
Of course, everyone knows that North by Northwest‘s script is famously incomprehensible. Roger Thornhill’s troubles begin when he is mistaken for another man and finds himself the unwitting victim of an elaborate conspiracy. Who the conspirators are, what their endgame is, how they manage to achieve the things they do, and who exactly knows what… it’s all a bit flim-flam, really. Like that perennial piece of pulp fiction The Big Sleep before it, the plot is really an excuse on which to hang the characters and dialogue, and I can’t imagine any serious film scholars would place this film at the top of Hitch’s output. It’s lacking in the delicate psychology of Hitchcock’s late era (which started, I’d argue, with Vertigo), and is less formally beautiful than The Wrong Man or Psycho. In some respects, indeed, it feels like a step backward from Vertigo. From here on out, Hitchcock would make films that felt self-consciously modern, with increasing interest in overt sexuality and psychology (helped, no doubt, by the crumbling of the Hollywood and British censorship codes). In fact, if Vertigo and North by Northwest had been switched in production order, you could very much see this film as the definitive end of Hitchcock’s middle era.
Such reservations, though, are all but moot. North by Northwest is a vibrant, colourful, hilarious, captivating romp, starring a quintessential Hitchcock lead and a vital supporting cast. It’s the summation of every ‘wrong man’ adventure Hitch had directed since he began making films. Lehman’s script proves to be almost a funhouse mirror version of those that came before; no-one but Thornhill seems to be taking the situation seriously – neither the cops nor his own mother believe that there even are spies! And, while it may be a farewell by Hitchcock to the genre, North by Northwest is inarguably the inspiration for so many films made since. It’s the kind of film that you see playing on TV as you walk past, and find yourself still there two hours later. And if that isn’t the mark of an engaging director, what is?
Hitch Cameo: Indicative of the later films, Hitch misses a bus during the film’s opening sequence.
“She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.”
— Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Psycho
written by Joseph Stefano, from a novel by Robert Bloch
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) flees the city after embezzling from her employer, and stops for the night at the Bates Motel. The rest is history…
…and then there’s Psycho. The post-Psycho Hitchcock films may be unfairly demonised, but it’s fair to say that none of them are as gripping as this. From the opening, in which Marion and her lover Sam (John Gavin) engage in post-coital debate, Psycho is a new, modern Hitchcock. Leigh is another quintessential Hitchcock blonde, but with cropped hair, and the unfortunate nature of dying less than halfway through the film. And Anthony Perkins – as the tormented, obsessive Norman Bates – is undoubtedly Hitchcock’s most terrifying villain, with his boyish looks and temper tantrums making him an eerily unsettling figure.
The marvel of Psycho is how cheaply it was made. Facing studio animosity, Hitch had to make the film on less than $1 million, a considerable drop from his 1950s output. Innovatively, Hitchcock purchased the right to Robert Bloch’s novel anonymously, which reportedly infuriated the author when he found out that he had sold his novel so cheaply to such a box-office drawcard. To keep costs down, Hitch worked with many of his TV crew, and chose to film in black-and-white. The latter decision, although primarily an economic one, has undoubtedly added to the film’s power. The horror is somehow more realistic in monochrome than the awkwardly tomato-saucy blood in The Birds or Marnie. Many viewers apparently recall the movie in colour, indicating just how palpable the terror became.
Although he was rarely credited as writer, Hitchcock was heavily invested in crafting the story. He became infamous in screenwriters’ circles for languid meetings over numerous days, where he and the chosen writer would toss out ideas for plot twists, counter those twists, and then counter them again. As he grew older, Hitch’s meetings would involve equal amounts of seemingly meaningless chatter, which tended to weed out the more ambitious screenwriters, and leave only those who could stomach the man himself. He enjoyed debates and discussion, believing that they were all part of the creative process. Tellingly, this method seems to have worked wonders: as we’ve discovered over the course of these reviews, Hitch as a director seems more animated, more alive, in the films where he had greater control over the screenplay. And Psycho is a psychological tour-de-force. The film’s first third plays as a sterling episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (a grittier episode, but nonetheless): the tortured process of Marion embezzling the money and attempting to escape will be echoed four years later in the opening sequence of Marnie. It’s heart-poundingly tense, all the way from her city office to the Bates Motel, and once we’re there, the anticipation doesn’t let up. Norman Bates is an unknown entity, and the ever-changing emotional beats of their night together remain as invigorating as when the film was first released. Is he well-meaning but creepy? Malicious but clever? Perverted but harmless? There’s a lot to enjoy here.
It’s probably time to talk about mothers. The domineering mother appears in Notorious, Rope (in its own way), and shortly in The Birds. The addle-brained mother was played to great effect in Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright, and North by Northwest. It would be wrong to pigeonhole this as some kind of Freudian debacle. The frightening and/or batty mother is a staple of English storytelling from Dickens to Austen, and writing them off as replays of childish sexual fantasies is to dismiss the imagination and ingenuity of writers from the last few centuries. At the same time, one can’t deny the basic incongruities in the relationship of a child to their parents: the role that fear and power play alongside love and protection. The terrors of the parent figure stretch back to the theatre of the Ancient Greeks, and resonate through to The X-Files and other present-day shockers. It’s no wonder that Hitchcock seized upon the idea so often. Still, even by his standards, nowhere in Hitchcock’s oeuvre do we find figures as twisted as Norman Bates and his mother. The delicate psychology of the characters borders up against camp, but somehow Perkins’ performance and the lower budget of the filming style keeps Norman grounded even during his worst excesses. (Right up until that final shot, at least…)
Leigh and Vera Miles are both convincing as the female leads, with performances that straddles the studio acting style (that was going out of fashion) and the more modern theatrical movements that were entering film. John Gavin and Martin Balsam are equally splendid as Lila’s allies, and the delightful appearances by John McIntire and Lurene Tuttle – as the local sheriff and his wife – provide some much-needed comic relief. Psychology – first used rather blatantly as a theme in the overrated Spellbound – had become a vastly important element for Hitchcock in the ’50s and ’60s. Of course, he’d always been fascinated by the actions of character in a way that many big-budget directors were not, to the point where it certainly hindered his commercial fortunes for his last few movies. While Psycho is far more blatant than most, it’s nonetheless a fascinating psychological thriller. By 1960, moral tides were turning. The Hays Code, which had kept Hollywood on a tight leash for the last two centuries, was beginning to crumble. Hitchcock still had to contend with the censors while crafting Psycho, but the excited public reaction to a film featuring nude murders and blatant mother issues can only have been a further nail in the coffin of the out-of-date censors.
Bernard Herrmann‘s score here is perhaps his most famous, with the screeches that accompany the infamous ‘shower scene’ the most well-known musical score in history, rivalled only by something from Star Wars or Jaws. Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock cannot be underrated. From the melancholy jazz of The Wrong Man and the whirling repetition of Vertigo to the lush Mahler-esque tones of Marnie, Herrmann knew how to change himself for the movies. Rumours abound that Hitchcock began to fear Herrmann was becoming repetitive, but I just can’t see it, and I wish that some of today’s greatest composers – such as Hans Zimmer – would take a leaf from Herrmann’s book, and stop doing endless riffs on the same sweeping majesty.
Using the skills and public image his TV series had groomed, Hitchcock himself controlled much of the promotion for Psycho, deliberately playing up the film’s surprises by refusing to let people into the cinemas after the film had started. (As the tagline said: “Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!”) The studio’s reservations were proved utterly ridiculous, as the film swept the box office, taking in $32, 000, 000, and earning four Academy Award nominations, including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and noms for Hitchcock and Leigh. (It was Hitch’s fifth and final nomination, the culmination of a distant-but-respectful relationship with the Academy which he had cultivated since arriving on American shores two decades earlier.) Fifty years on, Psycho remains one of the crowning achievements of the horror genre, and undoubtedly Hitchcock’s most shocking film. From the very start of his career, Hitch’s greatest interest was in perfectly predicting the audience’s reaction, and knowing exactly how to keep us in suspense. Psycho is the apotheosis of this talent. From Marion’s painfully tense car ride, to the revelation of ‘Mother’, there isn’t a wrong note in this film.
Psycho spawned innumerable, increasingly silly sequels, and perhaps contributed to the cult of gore which would take off shortly thereafter. (I’m one of the few people in the world who enjoyed Gus Van Sant‘s virtually shot-for-shot remake , but hopefully we’ll talk about that in an upcoming post) There’s no end to the merchandise available, the pop culture references, and the re-use of the film’s iconic score.
I’m not going to say that Psycho is my favourite Hitchcock film. I’m not haunted by the finale as I am by the endings of Vertigo or The Birds, nor am I as invested in Lila and Sam as in the protagonists of Strangers on a Train or Rear Window. But perhaps that’s because Norman is the protagonist. He’s the film’s most intriguing character, one who can never change or feel remorse. In the wrong hands, this story could easily have been pulp. But these were the hands of a master craftsman, and Psycho is Hitchcock’s most visceral, most terrifying work. On a tiny budget, in black-and-white, against all studio commands, Alfred Hitchcock created cinema’s most enduring act of suspense and horror, and he did it as only an artisan could – the tight editing of the shower sequence echoes down the ages. If he never again gave us anything like this, that’s because there is nothing like this. Psycho may not stand at the very top of Hitch’s canon, but where it stands, it stands alone.
Hitch Cameo: Delightfully, wearing a cowboy hat through the window as Marion returns to work.
Next time: we travel to the town of Bodega Bay for the thoroughly entertaining “The Birds”.